The Supreme Court said today it would not hear the case of Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling who claimed she was the victim of religious discrimination. The denial of cert is a quiet victory for everyone who actually looked at the facts of the story and recognized that Sterling’s religion had little, if anything, to do with her situation.
If you want to know the background of this story, it really depends on which source you’re reading.
Here’s a Christian version of the story, as summarized by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty:
In 2014, Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling was ordered to remove from her workstation three pieces of paper with a paraphrase from the Book of Isaiah, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper,” even though co-workers were permitted to keep nonreligious messages on their desks. She declined and was court-martialed. A lower court upheld Sterling’s court martial, rejecting her argument that her faith was protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Sounds harsh, right? Why would the military flip out over some strips of paper with paraphrased Bible verses on them?
Simple: That’s not what happened. Or, at least, that’s not the whole story.
As Chris Rodda documented so thoroughly, Sterling had a habit of not following orders. The Bible verse debacle was merely the last straw.
For instance, there was the time she refused go to her appointed place of duty:
Sterling was assigned the duty of giving out passes to family members visiting Marines who had just returned from a deployment. This duty was to be for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. Sterling claimed that she couldn’t perform this duty because she was on medication for migraines that made her drowsy, but, as the court-martial found, there was no reason that this medication would have interfered with Sterling performing this duty if she took it at night as prescribed. But, as Sterling admitted, she was not planning to take her medication as prescribed on that Sunday. She was planning to take it earlier. Her reason? She was going to church and the loud choir at the church service might bring on a migraine. Seriously, that was her excuse — that she planned to take her medication not as prescribed. Needless to say, this excuse didn’t work.
There was also the time she wouldn’t wear her uniform:
Sterling’s defense for the charges against her regarding her disobeying direct orders to wear the proper uniform was also a medical excuse. Sterling claimed that she had a medical order, referred to as a “chit,” saying that she did not have to wear a particular uniform because of a medical device she needed to wear for a back problem. But when her superiors checked this out, they found it not to be true, and that there was no reason that Sterling couldn’t be in the “uniform of the day” like everybody else. Much of the court-martial was focused on this issue of Sterling’s medical “chit,” and the finding was that it did not excuse her from refusing to obey the orders of her superiors to change into the proper uniform.
And it’s true she was told to remove the paraphrased Bible verses from her workspace, an order she didn’t obey, but there’s more to that story.
1) Sterling shared the desk with another junior Marine. It wasn’t just her personal space.
2) Because the verses were paraphrased, it wasn’t clear they were referencing the Bible. Out of context, they seemed “combative in tone,” and that’s why she was asked to remove them.
3) It wasn’t until mid-trial that anyone even mentioned the religious connotations. So when her superior officer removed the signs, it was done without any knowledge of their biblical significance. Sterling never made that clear, nor did she request a religious accommodation that could have allowed the signs to stay put.
The military court judges made all of this very clear in their ruling last August:
Appellant [Sterling] has nonetheless failed to identify the sincerely held religious belief that made placing the signs important to her exercise of religion or how the removal of the signs substantially burdened her exercise of religion in some other way. We decline Appellant’s invitation to conclude that any interference at all with a religiously motivated action constitutes a substantial burden, particularly where the claimant did not bother to either inform the government that the action was religious or seek an available accommodation.
The sole dissenting judge even noted that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Sterling used in her defense, couldn’t automatically apply in every situation, even if he felt it was correct here:
RFRA does not give members of the military carte blanche to do whatever they please, whenever they please, simply because they cloak their actions in the garb of religion.
What’s important to note is that the Bible issue wasn’t the deal breaker. In fact, when Sterling was court-martialed, it was the least discussed part of the case.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces was right to dismiss Sterling’s claims of religious persecution:
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, applauded the court’s decision…
“Our military can’t function effectively when service-members like Monifa Sterling repeatedly break the rules,” Lynn said. “She received the appropriate punishment for her actions, and the Court of Appeals for the Armed Services protected both the integrity of RFRA and military justice in its verdict today.”
Sterling wasn’t given a “bad-conduct discharge” because she was a Christian. If that happened, our military would be decimated. She was punished for not obeying orders. She did it multiple times even if you ignore the Bible verse incident. And even that Bible verse incident had nothing to do with the Bible.
Despite the facts of the case, First Liberty Institute asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. And the Supreme Court today refused to do it.
Mikey Weinstein, Founder and President of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, minced no words in applauding the SCOTUS denial.
Today’s magnificent decision by the United States Supreme Court to refuse to review the Monifa Sterling case is one of the most monumental watershed victories for military religious freedom against the base, evil, and vile tyranny of fundamentalist Christian oppression in the history of the United States Armed Forces.
The specious arguments of amicus briefs filed by fundamentalist Christian hate organizations as well as their fellow travelers — including thirteen fundamentalist Christian retired military generals, thirty-six Christian supremacist members of Congress, and even the attorneys general of fourteen conservative/red states — were no match for the clear, unadulterated justice that needed to be done here.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is extremely proud to have been on the right side of history in filing our amicus brief in this critical case for the cause of constitutional freedom. Lady Liberty is smiling today, and the forces of fundamentalist Christian exceptionalism and dominance have been beaten back in a landmark manner.
And the words “monumental” and “landmark” may sound exaggerated, but the fact that the RFRA argument didn’t work here is a big deal. It means the Court is saying there’s a line in the sand as to how far you can stretch religious beliefs to defend your actions. If Hobby Lobby’s Christian owners want to deny birth control coverage to employees, it’s okay… but in this case, it’s not. The more that line is pushed in the direction of limiting what religious people can get away with, the better. And the Supreme Court, in this case, saw no need to overturn or ever reconsider what the Appeals Court ruled earlier.
Incidentally, here’s how First Liberty reacted to the Court’s decision:
That’s it. “Case closed.” It should really say “Case lost,” but I guess they don’t have a label for that at their disposal. I wonder why.
(Update: First Liberty has now issued this press release, saying the Court will not review this “travesty,” and freaking out that service members won’t be able to exercise their constitutional rights because the military court doesn’t “think someone’s religious beliefs are important enough to be protected.”)
(Middle image via Wynona Benson Photography/Courtesy of First Liberty Institute. Large portions of this article were published earlier. MRFF issued a revised statement without the word “unanimous,” so I have replaced it and removed my own commentary about it in the piece.)